Warning About Skin Cancer 'Treatments' Sold Online
Scarring, more disease recurrence seen when patients use unproven skin salves
The problem? Alternative-medicine sources found online often promote questionable but commercially available treatments, such as black salves that contain potentially caustic or inflammatory ingredients like bloodroot and zinc chloride. If used inappropriately and without supervision, such products raise the risk that patients can develop significant pain and scarring, the researchers said.
To gain insight into the degree of risk, Friedman and Adler reviewed the findings of 26 self-treatment studies compiled between 2001 and 2012. Some of the studies involved a single patient, while others focused on a series of cases, with men accounting for nearly 77 percent of patients.
Half the patients had basal cell carcinoma skin cancer, while about 27 percent had sought a remedy to tackle moles. In all cases, patients had attempted treatment by self-administering agents containing bloodroot or zinc chloride, the researchers said.
The researchers said such treatments provided poor cosmetic results in nearly 89 percent of cases. What's more, mild to moderate scarring occurred among almost 57 percent of the patients, with the other 43 percent -- mostly skin cancer patients -- experiencing major tissue damage, the researchers said.
Although 71 percent of patients experienced some temporary resolution of their initial problem, more than 56 percent of patients with skin cancer still had cancer following treatment or saw their disease reappear, the researchers said.
In the end, only about 39 percent of those with basal cell carcinoma were fully cured by self-treatment. That figure pales in comparison to the nearly 95 percent cure rate seen when patients are treated with standard medical practice and guidance, the researchers said.
"The overarching message here is that, in the majority of cases, the end result was not favorable," Friedman said. "Neither in terms of cosmetic outcome nor in terms of curing disease."
Ashani Weeraratna, an assistant professor in the molecular and cellular oncogenesis program at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, said it's important that patients understand none of these sorts of self-help treatments are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"In this age of Internet medicine and access to all sorts of unregulated medications, it is critical that patients realize that these medications are not only not curative, but are actually harmful," said Weeraratna, who was not involved in the new research. "This is not only directly [through] tissue damage, but indirectly by not allowing for diagnosing, staging and the assurance of complete removal [of the cancer] by a trained team of dermatologists and pathologists.
"It is unimaginable that someone with a basal cell carcinoma, for example, would use a cream they bought from the Internet that could give them extensive tissue damage, and a chance of only a 38 percent cure," Weeraratna added. "[Particularly] when current standard of care for basal cell carcinoma involves completely safe, quick outpatient surgery, with no side effects, and a 95 percent cure rate."